Originally posted November 17, 2009:
As I’ve said before, one of the things I find fascinating about music it is its connection with memory: Some tunes, even the barest snippet, pull listeners back to a certain place, sometimes to a specific moment at that place.
Sometimes that place was important, sometimes the moment was. And sometimes, nothing about either seems significant at all. It’s just a musically triggered memory. One of those popped up the other day, as it sometimes will, when I heard Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” on the car radio.
There is, on St. Cloud’s North Side, a strip mall called Centennial Plaza. It went up in, oh, 1963 or so, and I think it was the second strip mall in the city. (For what it matters, it sits across the street from a residential development also named “Centennial,” which tells me that the development and the ensuing shopping center were planned in the late 1950s and named for the 1958 centennial of the State of Minnesota. I’d never thought of that before.) Its main tenant when it opened was a variety store called Grants, which sold the same sort of stuff as did the other dime stores of the day like Woolworth’s and S.S. Kresge. We didn’t shop there often, but when we did, I happily tagged along; the same old stuff seemed somehow different in a different store. In addition, a trip to Grants felt like an adventure: Centennial Plaza was on the north side, which was – in the mid-1960s – distant and unexplored territory. (An online mapping site tells me that the distance from our home on Kilian Boulevard to Centennial Plaza is 2.59 miles; it seemed much further than that in 1963.)
Along with Grants, one of the early tenants at Centennial Plaza was a tavern and restaurant that specialized in basic German food. In St. Cloud and the surrounding area, folks of German descent outnumbered any other ethnic group during the years I was growing up and still may do so. So the owners of the Bratwurst Haus were playing to their crowd, offering a multitude of sausages with sauerkraut and hot German potato salad, all washed down with beer. There were likely other dishes on the menu, but I don’t recall. The few times we went there, we ate bratwurst and kraut.
The Bratwurst Haus is long gone. I have no idea when it closed, but in its place is what appears to be a generic sports bar. One of the last times I went to the Bratwurst Haus was in the summer of 1974, when mom and I had lunch there with my sister, who was going to graduate school at St. Cloud State. I don’t recall what we ate – sausages and kraut and beer, most likely – but I do remember that another patron kept feeding the jukebox and playing “Bennie and the Jets.”
Now, that’s not anywhere near my favorite Elton John tune. If I were pressed, I’d nominate “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer” from among the hits, along with the album track “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” But to this day, it’s the most memorable: From the first fade-in of the applause and the chopping piano chords, “Benny and the Jets” puts me face to face with bratwurst and beer. That’s not necessarily a bad place to be, but I just wish it were a song I liked better.
So I began rummaging through Sir Elton’s catalog to see if there were any songs I liked more than “Benny” that had any kind of memory attached to them at all. The three favorites listed above triggered nothing. I cast my net wider and saw in the list “Take Me To The Pilot,” from the 1970 Elton John album. The only time I saw Elton John perform, that was the song that changed a good performance into a great one: Following a slower number, Elton stood up and kicked his piano bench back out the way. Leaning over the keyboard, he murmured into the microphone, “I love this song.” And then he launched into a kick-ass version of “Take Me To The Pilot.”
The memory’s not quite as indelible as that of the Bratwurst Haus, but it’s a far better song in my mind. And as I pondered “Take Me To The Pilot,” I wondered about cover versions. So I went looking. All-Music Guide lists fifty-one CDs that contain the song; about twenty-five of those are Elton John’s own versions.
Among the other performers listed as having recorded “Take Me To The Pilot” are Kiki Danielsson, José Feliciano, Tony Furtado, Ben E. King, Latimore, Enoch Light, Hugo Montenegro, Odetta and Rick Wakeman. That’s a pretty diverse list.
I have cover versions of “Take Me To The Pilot” by groups named Orange Bicycle and Joy Unlimited. Orange Bicycle, says AMG, was a British psych-pop group that released half a dozen singles during the late 1960s and then put out one album, a self-titled release of mostly covers (with some tracks produced by the great John Peel) in 1970. The group’s cover of “Take Me To The Pilot” is competent if a little bit plodding.
Joy Unlimited was a German pop rock group fronted by a singer named Joy Fleming. The one album the group released in 1970 had three titles, depending on where it was released. In Germany, it was called Overground, in the U.K., it was titled Turbulence and in the U.S., the LP was called simply Joy Unlimited. (I’ve tagged it as Overground.) AMG calls the group’s music “a competent amalgam of trends in American and British mainstream rock, pop, and soul, rather like the kind flashed by numerous bands emerging in neighboring Holland at the same time, like Shocking Blue.” Joy Unlimited’s version of “Take Me To The Pilot” is certainly more interesting, what with the punchy horn parts and other production filigree. I can do without the hypersonic shriek at the end though.
“Take Me To The Pilot” by Elton John from Elton John 
“Take Me To The Pilot” by Orange Bicycle from The Orange Bicycle 
“Take Me To The Pilot” by Joy Unlimited from Overground